Friday, August 25, 2017

Integration without Compromise - Chord's Hugo 2

Being able to integrate with existing solutions has become an important feature for me lately. Plug and play function with my LG V20 and laptop is a large part of why I purchased my Geek Out v2+. That same functionality is a large part of why I enjoyed the Cayin N3 as well. Keeping up with that theme is Chord's Hugo 2. Launched in the Spring of 2017, the transportable Hugo 2 offers an excellent mix of power and quality that is plug and play ready for mobile lifestyles!

Including the remote, the Chord Hugo 2 retails for $2,379. Purchases can be made via a local dealer in your area searchable via the Chord Website. However an little online digging and I found Audio46 as the only Amazon-Payment  capable vendor in my area. 

Furthermore, I want to thank both Chord and the members of Head-Fi who helped put this tour together, the following thoughts are my own and I was not compensated for them! 

What I like about the Hugo 2 build is the weight. It's heavier than it looks which makes me grip it a little tighter when I pick it up. For portable products I like something that has a solid in the hand feel. Super light, super thin, "air" products have never meshed well with me. I always feel like I'm going to lose or crush them. That sense of weight translates over into the implementation of the analog out puts. Each output had distinct grip on my cables with minimal wiggle and just the right amount of resistance when unplugging the cables. As I carried the Hugo 2 around my home during my listening impressions, the cables stayed put.

Chord's unique ball bearing buttons and roller-ball volume adjustment were memorable. While I was not a fan of how much play the individual ball buttons had, I did enjoyed the ease of motion from the volume ball. Unlike the ball bearing buttons, which rattle around when you interact with them, the volume ball had a smooth upward and downward motion. There was no excessive movement or resistance, adjustments to the volume were comfortable. Both minor and major adjustments to the volume were possible with the ball, and I never over shot my intended listening levels. The include remote had a good weight as well, each of the buttons had excellent resistance alongside an audible click.  I found my self more often using the remote than the top mounted buttons.

Aside from the noisy ball bearing buttons, the Hugo 2's USB inputs also proved less than ideal. In fact the entire left flank of the chassis on my demo unit suffered from obvious wear and tear or simply adequate build quality. The USB inputs for data and charge had far to much play in them, and there were visible gaps in the chassis around them.

Additionally, the demo unit I had operated at exceedingly hot to the touch temperatures. During the time I had it, I was unable to comfortably keep it on charge for the required 24 hours need to activate desktop mode. Seeing as it was a product I spent equal time with in my hands, as on my desk, I ran the unit almost exclusively on the battery. If I needed to charge it I was only comfortable charging and listening for 2 hours. Usage while charging beyond that 2 hour time frame resulted in the demo unit I had getting hot enough to leave a slightly darkened warm spot on my wood desk for around 20-30 minuets. Touching it wasn't painful, but hot enough to instill a sense of caution. Hence-forth my impressions Hugo 2 were completed from battery operation only. Running exclusive on battery power, I was able to achieve an average of about 7 hours of playback time. 

Functionality is straight forward on the Hugo 2, it accepts Optical, 3.5mm Coax, USB Mini Input and Blu-tooth digital in. It features 6.5mm, 3.5mm and L/R RCA analog output, functioning as a head Amp via a series of transistors in the DACs analog output stage and offering a fixed line out. While I noticed no change in the sound quality moving in-between the different analog outputs, the digital inputs each offered significant changes to the overall sound quality.

Specs of the Unit are as followed from Chord's Website:

Chipset: Chord Electronics custom coded Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA
Tap-length: 49,152
Pulse array: 10 element pulse array design
Frequency response: 20Hz – 20kHz +/- 0.2dB
Output stage: Class A
Output impedance: 0.025Ω
THD: <0 .0001="" 1khz="" 300="" 3v="" font="" rms="">
THD and noise at 3v RMS: 120dB at 1kHz 300ohms ‘A’ wighted (reference 5.3v)
Noise 2.6 uV ‘A’ weighted: No measurable noise floor modulation
Signal to noise ratio: 126dB ‘A’ Weighted
Channel separation: 135dB at 1kHz 300Ω
Power output @ 1kHz 1% THD: 94mW 300Ω
740mW 32Ω
1050mW 8Ω

With only the included hardware, I was able to test USB and Optical Inputs on the Hugo 2. While I do own a Digital Coax source, I did not have an RCA to 3.5mm digital Connector. Nor did Chord include an adapter from digital RCA  to 3.5mm Coax, honestly give the price I would have expected them to include ALL necessary digital inter-connectors.  Still, they were fortunate to ship the Charging cable with multiple regional cord adapters! 
Additionally, kindly take a moment to refresh your self on the meaning of terminology I use to describe sound, also please note that my Audio GD NFB10ES2/Hifiman HM901->PicoPower serve as my current reference point, as such I've grown accustom to a brighter sound signature from my Dac. 

As such, I found the overall sound quality signature of the Chord Hugo 2 to be;

  • Natural
    • Does not exaggerate  
    • Presents a strong from the body timbre
  • Excellent Micro Detail
    • Less ambient noise or lacking emphasis of macro detail
    • Cleaner more balanced transients and resolve of timbre
  • Smooth Dynamics
    • Micro dynamics are excellent
    • Macro dynamics are adequate
  • Black Background
    • Very little noise
  • Internal Amp has some mid range warmth/bloom
  • Softer relaxed presentation
  • Intimate imaging
    • Excellent depth and airy sound, with a slightly forward mid-range

This basic presentation does not change regardless of the digital input, what the digital inputs changed were the overall blackness of the background and the precision and size of the image as a whole. The worst digital input into the Hugo 2 was still phenomenally black compared to using the same input into my NFB10ES2.

Starting with Optical from my iRiver H140, I found this input to be atrocious, the highs were very hard and the imaging and resolve were hazy. If the world ends and all I have IS my iRiver H140... I'll be content but otherwise there's no situation in which this input is preferential.

USB Input was a BIG step up from Optical. Starting with USB Mobile, there were immediate gains in imaging and noise. USB Mobile presented a more clearly defined image presented again'st a blacker background which allowed transients to resolve more fully. Though USB Mobile still had some emphasis up top, not as bad as Optical but still not perfect. 

Moving to USB Desktop, I ran ASIO Output from Foobar 2000 into the Chord Hugo 2. The image as a whole was even sharper, there was even LESS noise than USB Mobile without the touch of emphasis up top. Which resulted in marginal improvements to the resolve of micro detail. 

With regards to the analog output, I did find the internal amp of the Hugo 2 had a touch of mid mange bloom to it, when testing it with an LCD XC, my HE 4 and my Nhoord Red V1. The Line Out was marginally cleaner, though the only benefit I found to using the line out was for more power or to pair your headphone with another amp for a better dampening factor. 

I actually enjoyed the LCD XC when pair'd with the Hugo 2. A lot of the LCD XC's weakness were compliment or masked over by the strength's of the Hugo 2. Though I was using a WyreWires Red Cable, as the lender who allowed me to barrow this didn't like the stock option and opt'd for me to hear his LCD XC with only  after market options! 

In particular when enjoying Igor Levit's Take on Aria, the Hugo 2 LCD XC pairing had an excellent mix of tactility and nuance for the piano piece, the more intimate sound of the Hugo 2 help'd give the LCD XC just a little more low body presence.  

In Miles Davis "So What" the often overly metallic presentation of the horns on the LCD XC, was more natural. A touch of warm vibrato in the horns especially became more apparent. The softer sound of the Hugo 2 pair'd beautifully with the amazing solid planar bass and cup resonance of the XC. In some tracks, I felt there was a lack of grip, but overall the Hugo 2 brought a much needed relaxing sound to what is other wise a very SHOUTY headphone. 

I was shocked at how well the Hugo 2 drove the HE 4 in particular! Ultimately though, the internal amp's lack of power combined with a softer presentation from the DAC it self robbed the HE 4 of the super exciting character I appreciate it for. Losses though in tactility, low end texture and speed were offset by gains in timbre and transient resolve. 

This pairing was by far my favorite! The Nhoord Red V1 is a DIY Grado style headphone. Featuring lower bass extension than a typical Grado. The overall sound of this can in particular is most similar to a Grado RS1i. That said, the headphone has a tendency to ring a little, the Hugo 2 presented both a beautiful warm mid range that DIDN'T have the ring I was used to! Overall for this Grado Style headphone, the combination was nothing but pleasant! More so than any of my current in house rigs sadly... 

Speaking of, I was very impressed with how the Hugo 2 paired with my ZMF Eikon and Garage 1217 Project Ember II. This was another really beautiful pairing I'd like to try and forget! 

Though the BEST sounding combination was from the Hugo 2 was with the Head Amp Pico-Power and my HE 4. The sound was harder, more exciting with the same improvements to timbre and resolve but without a lot of the exaggeration I'm used to! But the combined price of the two units, upwards of $2800 MSRP, makes a situation I doubt any one will realistically find them selves in 2017. As a hard to drive inefficient open back planar from 2011 is not a realistic portable headphone. In the last 6 years, there have been an influx of very efficient open backs as well as powerful portable products to pair them with. 

Finally, I took the time to compare the Hugo 2 to a few of my existing Rigs.

Starting with comparisons to my NFB 10ES2. For these comparisons I had the Hugo 2 fed via USB with ASIO Out, and my NFB10ES fed with Coax from a Schiit Etir fed with ASIO Out. 

In short, the Hugo 2 Dac section had every edge in it's presentation of timbre. Being very true and focused on the music it self, in contrast yo the NFB10ES2 had to much emphasis on macro detail it often simplified transients. By doing so it creates a great deal of excitement and energy, which when pair'd with it's more expansive sound stage is impressive... but ultimately a little distracting at times. The Hugo 2 was more intimate with a less exaggerated sound and a stronger focus on the music it self, macro detail took a big step back. The combination of a blacker output of the Hugo 2 and more intimate imagine result in micro detail taking a step forward! The only flaw of the Hugo 2 compared to the NFB10ES2 is it's more intimate imaging can be marginally less precise and it sounds very flat. The sound of the Hugo 2 presents minimal vertical space, where as the NFB10ES2 presents an image that has more room up top and down below and all around. In some cases it's closer to reality, though more often than not it sounds over defined. 

Moving to amplification, the NFB10ES2 only had an edge when more power was needed. So with the harder to drive HE 4 the NFB10ES2 presented a more consistent sound, where as the Hugo 2 while offering better timbre, because of the lack of power was also at times very hazy with it's imaging and presentation of the low end. The Hugo 2 lacked an accurate sense of time or speed with the HE 4 as well when compared to the NFB10ES2. Other wise, for dynamics and more efficient Planar's the Hugo 2 output was blacker with a less exaggerated more natural sound. 

I paired both the LCD XC and my Nhoord Red V1 with the balanced out of my LH Labs Geek Out v2+ for a comparison to the Hugo 2. 

Ultimately, while using the white filter on the Hugo 2 and the Green Filter on the GOV2+, I found the Hugo 2 to improve on every aspect of the GOV2+. The two shared a similar sound signature, but  the Geek Out V2+ sounds a bit noisy, cramped and exaggerated compared to the Hugo 2. The GOV2+ often simplified lot of transient information like the NFB10ES2, especially in comparison to the Hugo 2, which more clearly resolved audible textures such as the vibrato in the release of many of instruments. 

This comparison was a real eye opener for me, I haven't spent much time with my HM901 since I started working full time and haven't had a need for a transportable system that I can listen to. I'm either at home, or on my feet moving, a situation in which if I'm going to drop something I'd like it to be pretty cheap. Though I'm starting on my second degree here in a few days so I'll once again be in front of my laptop away from home for longer period's of time. A situation that's perfect for a transportable dac/amp combo! 

In terms of sound the HM901 [Vintage Filter] fed into the Pico Power traded blows with the Hugo 2. The HM901 Pico Power combo had more precise imaging, an equally black background, a smidge of emphasis on macro detail, is marginally less resolving of micro detail but had stronger more clearly defined dynamics and a better presentation of time. It's only flaw being that it can be a bit over sharpned, or over defined. The Hugo 2 while resolving micro detail better, presents more intimate imaging and sounds a touch romantic. It's not as dynamic, and doesn't adapt as quickly to changes in tempo either, very exciting passages of music lacked some energy in comparison to the HM 901 Pico Power combo, especially with Planars. While more natural sounding, it's sometimes a bit to relaxed in comparison to the HM 901 Pico Power combo. 

Ultimately different genres play better on one than the other, I grew up listening to a lot of live jazz bands. Listening with the HM901 Pico Power takes me back to my days sitting in the grass listening, the energy they presented and their ability to change and adapt around very unique time signatures always impressed me. The HM901 Pico Power combo embodies that energy, that excitement, that audible sense of speed. Where as on the flip side, my father owned a 12 String Gretsch guitar when I was a kid, listening to Chet Akins or any Spanish guitar Sonata's through the Hugo 2 reminded me of listening to my dad play at night before bed. The sense of intimacy and naturalness is very real, where as the HM901 Pico Power sounds a bit exaggerated with this genre and others like it. 

The real question I have now is how does the HM901 Pico Power compare to my NFB10ES2... that's one I'll have to explore that at a later date. 

Our last comparison is the NFB10ES vs the Hugo 2 when fed into my Project Ember II driving the ZMF Eikon. 

With the Hugo 2, the Ember II and ZMF Eikon were breathtaking to listen to. The Eikon's sound signature is music focused, with a black background, a solid low to mid range response and a tapered top end. It does an excellent job of resolving just enough macro detail to keep things interesting, but always places emphasis on the music, micro detail just pops with this combo! The Hugo 2's DAC output embodies much the same traits, minus the top end tapering. It was ultimately this combination that allowed me to grasp just how exaggerated my reference SABRE 9018 DAC really was. Still, moving from the stunningly beautiful sound of the Hugo 2 back to the more exaggerated NFB10ES2 did give the Eikon a bit more dynamic response with a larger more open sound stage at the expense of total resolution and clarity. Even worse there is a touch of noise on the analog output of the NFB10ES2, so listening above an average of 84 dBs I lose even more resolution. Thankfully, my reference listening level is 85 but still the lack of headroom on the NFB10ES2 get's annoying. 

For the price, I don't feel the Hugo 2's sound quality compares well to dedicated desktop solutions. It runs too hot and isn't priced competitively at $2379 MSRP. Though it's closer to and sometimes under $2000 if your comfortable buying second-hand from reputable sources. I feel it compares well to my own portable DAP solution, especially considering that 4 years ago I spent $1500 on a portable dedicated High-Fidelity Digital Audio Playback System.

Being my first Hi-Fi purchase I paid MSRP for my HM 901 back in 2014, an it too suffers from the same excessive play in it's buttons. Plus doesn't even have a remote, and not only that but it's limited to just playing music from the SD card loaded into it. While it fit my life style back then, it doesn't fit into my own an increasingly mobile life style now. The Hugo 2 can plug into my phone allowing me to listen to music, and still take phone calls without having to even remove my headphones. Even better, starting this year my cellular provider allows me to make and receive phone calls through my existing mobile number via a web app on my laptop. With the Hugo 2 and ASIO Output in FooBar 2000, I can be on campus and have access to my music library, have the flexibility to switch right into a YouTube video in my browser, watch and listen to material related to my course work, take a Skype call with my boss or a traditional call from my wife, without having to unplug anything. The Hugo 2 integrates into my life style with all of my existing tech, as opposed to a standalone DAP which serves as a separate system just for music. Thus isolating me from my other technology, forcing me to pick ONE system to listen to. Fortunately my Geek Out v2+ does the same, integrating with all of my Tech, but doesn't offer near the level of quality as the Hugo 2 or my HM901 PicoPower combo. Which means I have to compromise sound quality in exchange for flexibility and convince. In my eyes, based on how I live my life now and moving into the future the asking price for the Hugo 2 is validated. As it does more than my standalone DAP without compromising quality. 

In conclusion I can confidently recommend the Hugo 2 as a transportable solution. It's value is in it's portability, if your need a portable solution the Hugo 2 is an excellent choice. It's input flexibility, uncompromising phenomenally natural sound, well built included remote, and surprisingly powerful internal amp allow it to integrate into a variety of portable playback systems. It's a product that integrates well into the lifestyle of some one who's traveling often, either in the air or on the road. Student, working professional or in my case both, it's a one box solution that plugs right into what ever graphic interface your using and has plenty of power to drive most high-fidelity headphones. It's definitely a plug, play, sit back and enjoy experience. Presenting a happy union of convenience and superb sound quality!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Describing Sound - As Expressed in My Writing

Used Terminology Defined

Timbre - unique sound amd texture of individual instruments, what allows us to distinguish two different instruments playing notes of the same frequency. A more in depth definition is hosted here

Clarity (relating to frequency)- a lack of haze or fuzziness relating to frequency domain, a headphone with over emphasized lows/mids/highs that audibly overshadow the rest of the audible frequency lacks clarity

Clarity (relating to time) - the presence of reverb and or excessive ringing, think slow decay/sustain/release, a lack of focus, or a blur. A lack of clarity relating to time will soften and silence transients

Resolve - overall clarity and the presentation of detail
  • Micro Detail- pertains to the instruments themselves including transients
  • Macro Detail - ambient sounds, like foot steps
  • Noise (Pertaining to DAC's an Amps)- perception of a black or silent background, a such as a lack of hiss 

Transients- very short sudden sounds interweaving with the audible attack, decay, sustain,vibrato and release of an instrument, these five elements are interconnected an in more natural music are strongly related to how the instrument is played,
  • Attack - rise from silence to the peak or highest audible point
  • Decay - fall from the peak to either a state of sustain or point of release
  • Sustain - a continuation of audible energy
  • Vibrato - a rapid, slight variation in the pitch, often evident in both the sustain of an instrument and it's release
  • Release - the fall to silence
Dynamics - quick and effortless increases or decreases in volume, some may further specify this down to micro and macro
  • Micro - smaller gradual changes in intensity, either increasing or decreasing 
  • Macro - larger sudden changes in intensity, either increase or decreasing 
When I speak of the Lows/Mids/Highs I'm listening for 
  • Timbre of instruments that are dominate in the specified frequency range 
  • Clarity in the presentation of the specified range
    • neither a lack there of or over abundance of frequencies within the specified range
  • Resolve of micro-detail for instruments within the specified range
When I speak of "speed" how fast or slow piece of equipment sounds, I'm referring to the combined presentation of transients and overall clarity. Gear that is too fast, often sound very thin as it may have a quicker than natural decay and present an over emphasized attack. While extremely tactile and exciting it's not "pure" is respect to fidelity, very fast equipment is good for listening to other gear but not so much your music. Equipment that is too slow can be enjoyable but often exaggerate decay and soften attack, slower sounding headphones will be very forgiving of the gear and overall quality of your music but will also be lacking the presentation of some transients. In my opinion balance is ideal, not to fast nor to slow sounding, a balanced presentation results in a very natural sound.

Energy- would be both the perceived an actual volume of frequencies within a certain range. To little energy makes music dull, to much makes it sound harsh or fake.

Finally when describing the lows, highs and mids I like to use vocabulary related other sensual input.

Pertaining to the Highs I like to use words like bright an dark to describe the top end. Neither is better than the other, as ultimately we want balanced. Bright headphones with a dark source, or a dark headphone with a bright source

  • Bright- having an abundance energy in the top end 
    • imagine walking outside and having the sun shine right in your eye's, it's not pleasant and your eyes really struggle to define what's in front of you . Light-wise a excessively bright headphone can make it more difficult for your ears to define what your listening to, there's an overabundance of energy on the highs, which can negatively alter your perception of the musical piece as a whole 
    • on the flip side something that's bright can be like a candle/lantern/flashlight it shine's light onto an otherwise dark soundscape
  • Dark - having a lack of energy in the top end
    • going back to the same situation, imagine walking into a dimly lit room. There's really just not enough light to see everything within. Like wise a lack of energy up top can often mask some audible information up top.
    • on the Flip side something that's "dark" can also be like a pair of sun glasses, which reduce the negative effects of excessive brightness 
Pertaining to the Mids and Lows I like to use words like warm, cold or cool, lean or rich, sweet or dry. In simple terms these two ranges are connected more so than the Mids are to the Highs, again the idea is to have balance. If your source is very lean then you'd like a richer amp or headphone. Or if your source is very rich, like a Tube Dac, you'd want a very lean amp or headphone. Like wise, if your source is warm then you want a cold headphone, if your headphone is very warm you can get better balance with a colder source 
  • Warm- having an abundance of decay/resonance 
    • Warmth isn't bad, but it's very preferential. A lack of warmth is cold, an abundance of warmth... is like a hot summer day in my home town of Myrtle Beach... it's 98F and the humidity is at 100%. The warmth literally hit's you like a wet soft blanket. An abundantly warm headphone produces sound that hit's you in a similar manner. An some people like that... how ever excessive decay in the lows can also take away from energy and transients the highs as well... reducing the "bite" of the sound your hearing
  • Cold- a lack of decay/resonance 
    • A cooler sound isn't bad but it's preferential. If it's not cold it's warm, but a lack of decay can make your music feel like walking outside in 30F temperatures with 80% humidity, the air literally BITES you... likewise with a cold headphone the sound bites your ears. To what degree is does is based on the rest of your system, but having some bite to music is natural, a lack of decay or resonance can harden an softer sound 
  • Lean - having less decay or resonance   
    • This one's easy, think meat. Do you like fattier meats, or leaner meats without as much fat. Both are important, meat with no fat can be lack flavor, meat with too much fat can taste... well fatty no longer like the animal it was cut from. In cooking we will often add a fat to a very lean meat, or render off the fat of a fattier meat. Like wise with sound reproduction gear the aim is to be balanced. Not taking away or adding to much to what the artist/engineer have created and captured, gear that produces a sound that is too lean can make your music more aggressive or over textured and hard. 
  • Rich - having more decay or resonance
    • Again something that sounds rich can be likened to adding heavy cream to a sauce to improve it's texture. Creating a beautifully silky experience, though too much richness can lead to something being oily or... icky feeling. Like wise a sound that's too rich can feels super soft and gross sometimes undefined, 
  • Sweet -  an abundance pertaining to harmonics 
    • They say that even ordered harmonics are pleasant to listen to and make music really touch your soul, but too much of a good thing is never good. An sweetness is again preferential. I LOVE Semi-Sweet Dark Chocolate, I think it has the right balance of sweetness, you may like a sweeter milk chocolate thinking it has the right balance of sweetness. Ideally you want a good balance of sweetness in the music, or harmonics. To much or too little takes away from the overall enjoyment 
  • Wet/Dry - these concepts work in tandem too much of one is almost always bad 
    • Wet - an abundance relating to harmonics and or decay
      • Machines require lubrication to operate smoothly, too much oil in your engine is bad things start to slip, too little and they lock up.  A sound that is too wet is sloppy, some wetness is required and necessary for a pleasurable listen. Not everything that is wet is sweet, however though most things that have sweetness also have some wetness  
    • Dry - a lack of harmonics and or decay
      • Going back to machines if there's a lack of lubrication, things start to lock up. If something's dry it may be lacking some decay but not always the presence of harmonics, the degree of dryness or the level of which moisture is absent is important. If I'm using dry it's going to be important to understand the context in which it's used. 

Ultimately a Natural Sound is on that has balanced mix of all of these elements. Though seeing as there is no piece of gear that will reproduce perfectly natural sound, any use of the term is realities to the preference of the individual listener. A comparison of only "natural" sounding gear will still result in some being brighter or darker, leaner or richer, wetter or drier than each other respectively. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Cayin's N3 Entry Level Digital Audio Problem Solver

Back when I was in middle school listening to music was easy. I had a CD player loaded with my favorite album at the time, Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys, and a pair of semi-open Koss TD 75's.

I'd hope on the bus and just listen, occasionally the CD would skip when we hit a bump in the road, but it was smooth listening for the most part. 

Growing up though, I went from my CD player to an iPod Nano, then a ZUNE HD which I sold and replaced with my Hifiman HM 601 and upward an onward to 2013 when I purchased my Hifiman HM 901.

So listening to music on the go has always been a pretty simple part of my life and I've always had one stand alone device to do it. Though these days, for many of us that's not the case. Cellular technology has made huge advancements over years, making it easier and simple to listen on the go! Spotify went mobile in 2010 offering lossy streaming quality.  It was likely that most listeners where still running around 96kbs streaming with them. Which means that a dedicated player loaded with a library of CD quality music, was still the best choice.  The launch of Tidal in 2014 and big improvements to cellular technology changed the industry, Hi-Fi music play back was no longer limited to a dedicated portable audio player. Mobile speeds could now support lossless streaming bit rates. 

Arriving at our present day, enjoying music on the go is still simple affair. Most people are content with their phone, but for those wanting more there are dozens of options available. Since 2015 there have been a few choice for those looking for a BlueTooth Dac/Amp. From the Sound Blaster e5 and the Shanling H3, so the N3 isn't the first product of it's kind. Even today you can find a basic BlueTooth dac/amp for around $100. Though what sets the Cayin N3 apart is that is functions as both a stand alone player and a BlueTooth compatible Dac/Amp. What Cayin has done with the N3 is offer a unique solution. Having had a chance to speak briefly with Andy Kong of Cayin, he informed me that Cayin choose to integrate with instead of choosing to compete against cellular technology. 

Priced at $150, the N3 offers a step up from the more basic portable dac/amps. It's a digital audio player, able to function by it self, with your cellular phone and with your computer! It can be purchased in the US via Amazon and the online retailer MusicteckAside from functionality, I'll be discussing the build quality, user interface, and sound quality over the course of this review.

The N3's build features clean edges and well machined seams, running my fingernail across it's surface I'm hard pressed to find any gapes or weak seams. The player it light, each physical button has good tactility and resistance, the front facing touch interface works well. It took me longer than I'd like to admit to release the left and right buttons, move through the UI as well as double as forward and reverse buttons. Silly me spend 4 days thinking I had to swipe from the middle down to go left?! Thankfully, it's not that complicated. I did how ever accidentally hit the back button a few times in my attempts to move right or forward. The Cayin N3 is well built, it's neither luxuriously vain nor hastily slapped together, rather it's solid assembly sports entry level materials. A good balance of design, functionality and durability.    

My only gripe was the SD Card slot, I had no issue working it but others in my tour group had some difficulty getting a card in an out. By the time I got a hold of the unit I was able to insert an SD card without any issues. I was not how ever able to retrieve it, not a huge deal as I can still access the card from the USB C port.

Navigating the user interface was easy, it's approachable though often a bit time intensive. It's not as robust as the open source RockBox I run on my other digital audio players, but it's also graphic based. Lines of text aren't always everyone's preference. An Cayin met a happy median with the N3's graphic interface.

Visually pleasing and self explanatory, each of the Menu's were labelled correctly. Everything read naturally an operation was seamless. No hiccups or freezes during my time with it. Each menu had numerous options, and the buttons made navigation simple. Although  there were too menu's I had to work back through to get to the home screen. 

My average battery life ranged from as low as 7 hours and upwards of 9. Running the line out drew a little more power than having the headphone amp in usage. BlueTooth also drained the battery quicker than standard usage, non the less it lasted around 2-3 days.  

What I found most impressive was the power out of the headphone port, I had more headroom with the N3 than I did with Hifiman HM 601. The N3 was also blacker, providing more power with less noise. Additionally it had three gain stages, I found my self using the middle two the most. This combined with the precision of the digital volume controls made for seamless level matching at lower levels. In contrast my HM 601's analog volume wheel didn't match as well during quieter listens. An it had more noise with less power output. 

BlueTooth playback did introduce a touch of noise how ever, pair'd with my LG v20 I was easily able to adjust the volume of my music straight from my Cellular phone. The addition of noise didn't haze up the imaging as much as I'd thought, and was mostly harmless. 

An honestly, I enjoyed the BlueTooth functionality the most, I had the convince switching from my internal library of music in Neutron, to streaming from Napster Premium to falling back to the internal library on the N3. While streaming from my LG V20, I could easily adjust the volume on my phone, tweak my DSP settings and scroll through my library of music. Without having to fumble around with a cable sticking out of my device. I also like to do a little photo editing with my v20, an often times I'll rotate my screen to fit the angle I want while editing, a cumbersom task to do with a headphone cord dangling from your phone. The dynamics suffered a little, as quieter passages of music had audible noise mixed in. Still when my hands are busy I enjoy having music playing in the back ground. Even better is being able to keep the N3 and my headphones tucked away safely in my pocket with my favorite pair of headphones plugged directly into the N3. An when I'm ready to really listen to the music, I can terminate the BlueTooth connection and immediately continuing listening straight from the N3 it self. 

Over the course of my week, I listened with both my open back Superlux HD 668B and my heavily modded Audio Technica ES 10, I had no EQ and I tested both the headphone and line level out. 

Clarity is the N3's focus, placing more emphasis on ambient details and individual textures over transients and spacial information. 

You can adjust the sound signature further with a selection of digital filters. Sharp, Short Delay and Slow are the three I found made the biggest impact. Sharp offers the quickest sound and most clarity, though it's often a bit to lean. Slow sacrifices some of the clarity and speed for a more natural sound, Short Delay sits in the middle. Not as lean as Sharp but not missing as much of the clarity of Slow. I enjoyed Slow with my Superlux HD 668B and Short Delay with my Audio Technica ES10. 

Lows are quick an articulate with the N3, with more focus on the attack and decay than on the sustain or release. This makes for an exciting listen, adding additional impact to instruments like the double bass, though low notes on a piano were often too percussive, sounding a little hollow. 

Mid-range is lean, offering a clearer presentation of texture within individual instruments, though the texture can be over emphasized some times. Leading to a thinner timbre, the filters do help regulate and correct this fault in timbre a little. Depending on the track and headphone your listening with. 

Up top the N3 presents has a nice edge. A bit of a tizz to high hats and percussion, this plays nicely with a lot of the thick and dark entry level headphones, but with something more open like the Super Lux HD 688B it's a real distraction. The filters offer the most help here, switching to slow alleviated a lot of the hardness for the HD 668B. Still though I often found percussion, snare drums and tom tom drums to sometimes get lost beneath the energy of high hats and cymbals. 

Imaging is intimate and a little closed in, compared to my HM 601. However N3 is more precise within the space it offers, where as the HM 601 offers a larger more cohesive image overall. Instruments have a very exact presentation as to where their placed in relation to one another. 

The Line out is characterized by much the same qualities though improved, clarity first and foremost but with a more dynamic presentation. Highs maintain a good edge but gain a little air. This added air allowed for a snappier more precise presentation with percussion in particular. Feeding into my Pico Power I also enjoyed a more cohesive image from the N3 as well. It's very pin point imaging isn't as disjointed via the line out either. 

Finally, for those curious the sound of the Cayin N3 was noticeably better than that of my LG v20. In comparison, the V20 is bright strident and often artificial sounding. It has a very dynamic sound, but some how lacks impact and texture, a very incoherent sound signature.  

All in all the N3 presents a smartly voiced sound signature that pairs nicely with both entry and more reference tuned mid range headphones. The almost limitless functionality pair'd with a smartly built and designed package make ownership a no brainier. It isn't a luxury device, but one designed to be an important part of your mobile listening needs bridging the gap between cellular and stand alone music players to create a more enjoyable seamless experience. 

Check out my Head Fi post for more detailed comparisons.